- The Washington Times - Friday, April 7, 2000

Just when editors, copy desks, high-school grammarians, and maybe even William Safire throw up their hands in despair that a passable version of the language can be preserved on this continent, the rest of the world rushes to embrace the language of the race of kings.

The French, of all people, confirmed that this week in Brussels, of all places, when France lodged an official protest with the European Union about the way English is replacing French as Europe's working language.

The Spaniards tried a halfhearted protest of the gathering dominance of English two years ago, when Spanish diplomats walked out of several policy meetings because no one had taken the trouble (or expense) to arrange for a translator. But this might have been merely an excuse to get out of boring meetings that were droning on forever, and the diplomats were tired of trying to sleep sitting up.

Poor France. Its wines now frequently suffer from comparisons to the best from California, Australia, Chile and maybe even Ohio, and when was the last time anyone wanted French cuisine if there was good Italian pasta in the neighborhood? French pastry, whether pastry from the patisserie or the pastry of the bordello, is still the world standard, but the language prized in Gallic hearts above all things retreats before the tongue of the despised English.

French diplomats everywhere complain they can't figure out what's going on in Europe because everybody's speaking a language they can't or won't understand. Neil Kinnock, one of two British members of the European Commission, lusts to be the president of the European Commission, but the French have told him they will see that he never makes it unless he learns fluent French and when the French say fluent, they mean fluent. Mr. Kinnock is trying to learn French, but concedes he is having problems declining verbs and mastering pronunciation.

Pierre de Boissieu, the French ambassador to the European Union, sent an angry letter to the current president of the European Commission, raging at the injustice of, and his outrage at, the slight to Joan of Arc, Voltaire, Moliere, Louis Pasteur, Madame Curie, Louis XIV, the flawless sauce mousseliene and the perfect creme brulee.

"We are very, very worried about this," a spokesman for the French government tells the London Daily Telegraph (which reports it without gloating). "Sometimes we do not get documents and conclusions from council meetings in French until two weeks later. How are we then supposed to know what has happened?" Between teeth no doubt clinched, she adds: "It must be remembered that some people do not speak English."

True, but there are fewer and fewer of such people every day. Everyone else has decided that if something is worth hearing, somebody will say it in English, even if imperfectly. Only this week, the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the nation's largest, ordered that all German children must be taught in English for two hours each week from age 8 onward. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the most important newspaper in Germany, announced that it would begin producing a daily eight-page English edition. "English," the newspaper's editors said, "is going to be the lingua franca of the next century." (This takes note of the fact that, despite the Y2K hype now mercifully mostly forgotten, the 20th century does not end until midnight next December 31.)

"Improved ability in the global language, English, will provide a better start for our children in an international society and working environment," says Gabriele Behler, the education minister for North Rhine-Westphalia. More than a thousand additional teachers will be hired for the state's schools and they will take accelerated training to make sure their English is up to British standard, which would, alas, measure it against a higher standard than the English spoken or written on our side of the Atlantic.

When the EU was founded four decades ago, everyone had to speak French, and for nearly two decades, the language of Tallyrand flowered in unexpected places. The EU still recognizes 11 "official" languages, but when the British joined up in 1972, they took English to Brussels with them, and the news for the French is all bad.

The traditionally snotty French attitude toward anyone trying to speak their language may, in fact, be what doomed French as the prime international language. Sneers and insults greet any visitor in Paris who, with or without an accent, asks the simplest question in halting guidebook French. Even the haughtiest Londoner, confident that English is the language of Heaven, is nevertheless unfailingly polite and helpful to a foreigner grappling with the language of the Bard. And you can drink the water.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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